United Church of Christ leaders urge Ohio governor to reject prison-privatization initiative
Written by Jeff Woodard
March 13, 2012

Strongly discouraging an initiative to allow private companies to purchase state-owned correctional facilities, leaders of the United Church of Christ are urging Ohio Gov. John Kasich to uphold "the standard teachings of our faith –– mercy, redemption, reconciliation and forgiveness."

"These values, which are central to our faith and to our citizenship, are entirely contrary to prison privatization," the UCC’s Collegium of Officers wrote in a letter hand-delivered on March 13, 2012, to Kasich's office by the Rev. Bob Molsberry, the UCC's Ohio Conference minister.

The letter references the passage of the 1997 General Synod resolution encouraging UCC members to speak out about a trend toward purchasing prison services from private corporations.

"Our deepest concern is that the process of incarceration is crucial to the public good and is built on fundamental public trust and accountability," said the Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo, executive minister for the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries, about the letter. "We trust our government to maintain the safety of the general populace."

The Collegium's letter also stressed the importance of maintaining high standards for fair and humane treatment of prisoners.

"In our state-owned and state-managed facilities, public employees are directly accountable to the populace as a whole," said the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, UCC general minister and president. "We believe that by allowing private companies to own and/or to operate prisons in Ohio, the fundamental accountability to the process is reduced, and the public trust is compromised."

In the letter, the Collegium noted that the UCC aligns with the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, the Catholic Bishops of the South and the Episcopal Diocese of Newark in opposing private ownership and management of prisons.

A coalition of Presbyterian members is hand-delivering similar letters of reproach to more than a dozen state governors to protest their states' contracts with the Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). The letters were sent in response to a letter recently distributed by the CCA to officials in 48 states announcing a "corrections investment initiative."

The CCA says it has offered to purchase prisons that contain at least 1,000 beds "if the states agree to pay CCA to operate the prisons for at least 20 years and keep prisons at least 90 percent full."

"These companies earn money through per diem rates, with the result that they have every financial reason to incarcerate as many people as possible for the longest time possible," said Jaramillo. "This is a profound disincentive for criminal-justice reform, including programs for alternative sentencing, community service and early release. It also flies in the face of declining prison populations and ties the state of Ohio to a guaranteed population even though it may not reflect what is actually needed."

In addition to Black and Jaramillo, Collegium members signing the letter were: W. Mark Clark, associate general minister; the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, executive minister of Local Church Ministries; and the Rev. James Moos, executive minister of Wider Church Ministries.

Here is the complete text of the letter from the United Church of Christ’s Collegium of Officers delivered to Ohio Governor John Kasich:

"We are writing to you to express our deep concern over the developing process of privatizing prisons. We serve as the officers of the United Church of Christ, a mainline Christian denomination with more than 5,000 churches in the United States, with national headquarters in Cleveland. Fifteen years ago, the UCC's General Synod passed a resolution urging members to speak out about the growing prison industrial complex and the shift toward purchasing prison services from private corporations.

"We urge you to reconsider prison privatization in the State of Ohio.

"Our deepest concern is that the process of incarceration is crucial to the public good, and is built on fundamental public trust and accountability. We entrust our government to maintain the safety of the general populace. At the same time, we require our government to maintain high standards for fair and humane treatment of prisoners. In our state-owned and state-managed facilities, public employees are directly accountable to the populace as a whole. We believe that by allowing private companies to own and/or to operate prisons in Ohio, the fundamental accountability to the process is reduced, and the public trust is compromised.

"Some fundamental elements of government must maintain high standards for safety, humane treatment, and accountability. A private corporation has, at its very heart, the purpose of making money for shareholders. This is a contradiction of the purpose of prisons — which should be to keep the public safe while maintaining a safe and humane environment for those who are incarcerated.

"Although the sale of prison facilities to private corporations may offer the State an infusion of cash at the outset, we are concerned that long term contracts for management will cost the State significantly in the long term. Various estimates for the sale and contract for management of prisons in Ohio, Florida, Arizona and Michigan have all raised significant and serious concerns about the reality of cost savings to the states.

"The Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) has recently introduced an investment initiative which notes that $250 million has been made available to purchase and operate several correctional facilities under 20 year contracts, with guaranteed occupancy of 90 percent.

"We oppose sale and long-term management of Ohio's facilities to the CCA or to other private corporations. These companies earn money through per diem rates, with the result that they have every financial reason to incarcerate as many people as possible, for the longest time possible. This is a profound disincentive for criminal justice reform, including programs for alternative sentencing, community service and early release. It also flies in the face of declining prison populations, and ties the State of Ohio to a guaranteed population even though it may not reflect what is actually needed.

"Further, private prisons have been known to maintain profit by cutting costs in the areas of training and staff remuneration, with the consequence that these prisons raise serious concerns about management, staff competence and supervision. As a case in point, we note that in 1998, six prisoners escaped from a CCA prison in Youngstown. In the aftermath, analyses of the escape raised serious issues concerning poor training and inadequate supervision by guards.

"We believe that the criminal justice system in our country and in the State of Ohio is held to a standard of the teachings of our faith: mercy, redemption, reconciliation, and forgiveness. These values, which are central to our faith and to our citizenship, are entirely contrary to prison privatization.

"We are not alone in this position. We join the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, the Catholic Bishops of the South, and the Episcopal Diocese of Newark in stating our opposition to private ownership and management of prisons.

"We opposed the recent purchase of the Lake Erie Correctional Facility by the CCA. Despite our opposition, that sale has been completed. We note with dismay that, rather than submitting the experience of CCA in Ohio to careful review and analysis, CCA has moved quickly forward toward the purchase of other prisons, writing to 48 governors to request that they join in this corrections investment opportunity. We urge you to require significant and careful review of this program. We urge you to take no further action to sell facilities or long-term management contracts to private corporations until such time as a careful analysis of this experience is conducted. Even then, we urge you to consider that private ownership and operation of prisons is counter to the public trust for this crucial element of state governance."

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CONTACT INFO



Rev. Bentley de Bardelaben
Executive for Administration and Communications Justice & Witness Ministries
700 Prospect Ave.
Cleveland,Ohio 44115
216-736-3713
debardeb@ucc.org